Category Archives: contemplation

February 8: St. Josephine Bakhita

An heroic African woman from the Sudan, Josephine Bakhita was kidnapped by slave traders when she was 9 years old and forced into slavery for almost 12 years. Pope Benedict XVI wrote of her in his encyclical letter “On Hope” as an example of God’s gift of hope. “To come to know God—the true God—means to receive hope.”

“I am thinking of the African Josephine Bakhita, canonized by Pope John Paul II. She was born around 1869—she herself did not know the precise date—in Darfur in Sudan. At the age of nine, she was kidnapped by slave-traders, beaten till she bled, and sold five times in the slave-markets of Sudan. Eventually she found herself working as a slave for the mother and the wife of a general, and there she was flogged every day till she bled; as a result of this she bore 144 scars throughout her life.

Finally, in 1882, she was bought by an Italian merchant for the Italian consul Callisto Legnani, who returned to Italy as the Mahdists advanced. Here, after the terrifying “masters” who had owned her up to that point, Bakhita came to know a totally different kind of “master”—in Venetian dialect, which she was now learning, she used the name “paron” for the living God, the God of Jesus Christ.

Up to that time she had known only masters who despised and maltreated her, or at best considered her a useful slave. Now, however, she heard that there is a “paron” above all masters, the Lord of all lords, and that this Lord is good, goodness in person.

She came to know that this Lord even knew her, that he had created her—that he actually loved her. She too was loved, and by none other than the supreme “Paron”, before whom all other masters are themselves no more than lowly servants. She was known and loved and she was awaited.
What is more, this master had himself accepted the destiny of being flogged and now he was waiting for her “at the Father’s right hand”. Now she had “hope” —no longer simply the modest hope of finding masters who would be less cruel, but the great hope: “I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me—I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.” Through the knowledge of this hope she was “redeemed”, no longer a slave, but a free child of God.

She understood what Paul meant when he reminded the Ephesians that previously they were without hope and without God in the world—without hope because without God. Hence, when she was about to be taken back to Sudan, Bakhita refused; she did not wish to be separated again from her “Paron”.

On 9 January 1890, she was baptized and confirmed and received her first Holy Communion from the hands of the Patriarch of Venice. On 8 December 1896, in Verona, she took her vows in the Congregation of the Canossian Sisters and from that time onwards, besides her work in the sacristy and in the porter’s lodge at the convent, she made several journeys round Italy in order to promote the missions: the liberation that she had received through her encounter with the God of Jesus Christ, she felt she had to extend, it had to be handed on to others, to the greatest possible number of people.

The hope born in her which had “redeemed” her she could not keep to herself; this hope had to reach many, to reach everybody.”

Benedict XVI “Spes salvi” 2007

Josephine Bakhita died February 8, 1947 and was declared a saint in 2000.She is the patron saint of the Sudan and victims of human trafficking. For more on her, see here.

St. Agnes, January 21

St. Agnes
January 21, 2019

St. Agnes, Rome

Agnes, one of the most popular Roman women martyrs of the 3rd century, is among the seven  women mentioned in the 1st Eucharistic Prayer:  “Felicity, Perpetua,  Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia.” She’s honored in a special liturgy in the Liturgy of the Hours. 

Her story appears in legendary 5th century sources, but some basic facts about her seem historically reliable. Agnes was a beautiful, wealthy 13 year old girl chosen to be the wife of an influential Roman man, but she refused to marry him because she believed as a Christian she had the right to remain unmarried. A deeply religious young woman, she wanted to give her life to God.

That wasn’t an option for Roman women then. Women were expected to marry young, to marry men chosen for them, and to have two or three children. Rome needed citizen soldiers then to grow and hold on to its empire. Only reluctantly did Rome come to depend on foreigners for its fighting. It preferred its own men and wanted its own women to produce them. 

When Agnes refused to marry, she went against Roman expectations. She was also a Christian and since she lived in times influenced by Diocletian, a notorious enemy of Christianity, she was a target of religious persecution. They pressured her to give up her beliefs; when she refused they declared her an enemy of the state.

Tradition says the authorities brought her first to the Stadium of Domitian, to a brothel of prostitutes there, to commit her to a life of degradation, but God kept her from harm. She would not yield, and so they took her to the arena and killed her by slitting her throat. Those who saw her die marveled at her courage and her faith. 

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Martyrdom of Agnes, Church of St. Agnes, Rome

Commentators like St. Ambrose, writing afterwards about Agnes, marveled at the young girl’s bravery. In Roman households of the best kind, young girls were protected and not expected to speak for themselves. Here was a young girl who stood up to the Roman establishment, even till death. How did she do it ?

“God chooses the weak to confound the strong” the prayer for the Mass of St. Agnes says.  She confounded the way Roman Christians thought about holiness. Men like Peter and Paul and other disciples of Jesus, soldier saints like Sebastian, who witnessed to the faith by dying for it were  the usual measure of holiness then. Devotion to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, grew later in the 4th century, as disputes took place about the human nature of Jesus. In Agnes’ time women were hardly seen or heard. 

Agnes and women martyrs like her redefined the way early Roman Christians thought about holiness. Women, even young girls, could be heroic witnesses to the Jesus Christ. 

Agnes was buried in the catacombs along the Via Nomentana outside the walls of the city and has been honored there ever since. A majestic ancient church stands over her grave. Another 16th century church honoring her in on the Piazza Navona, where the Stadium of Domition once stood and the young girl endured great suffering.

Some say the 1st Eucharistic Prayer mentioned above goes back to the 6th century pope, St. Gregory the Great, whose family home was on the Celian Hill in Rome, Some also say his mother and aunt may have promoted the women listed in that prayer, all strong women who died for their belief.

One of the new Eucharistic prayers asks us to see “the signs of the times by the light of faith.” What’s the role of women in our times and in our church? 

Wonderful churches to visit, if you go to Rome.

st. agnes church
St. Agnes, Via Nomentana, Rome

Reading Mark’s Gospel

Mark

After the Christmas season we read  from the first 10 chapters of the Gospel of Mark at daily Mass till the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Even if you can’t get to daily Mass, read along with the daily lectionary. It’s a wonderful way to pray.

The medieval artist who painted the portrait above of  Mark, sees him as an old man, adjusting his spectacles and getting down to work, while a lion, a traditional symbol of the evangelist, gets ready to roar.

A roaring, fast-paced story– good way to describe Mark’s gospel–. “After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the Gospel of God: ‘This is the time of fulfillment. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.’” Think of loud trumpets, drums and clanging symbols. We read it in slow motion. It’s meant to be read fast, one story building on the other.

Jesus proclaims the Kingdom of God, first in Galilee and then in Jerusalem, by miracles and powerful signs. The “wild beasts” he faced in the desert (Mark 1,13) face him now in human form, but he boldly goes his way, with a lion’s courage. From now till Ash Wednesday we follow him in Galilee, then to Jerusalem.

We learn from him as we follow him.

Saint Hilary of Potiers

Hilary

Besides  the scriptures, the saints are companions on life’s journey, revealing  the wisdom of God from age to age.  “A cloud of witnesses,” the Letter to the Hebrews calls them.

January 13th we remember St. Hilary of Potiers, who lived in the early 4th century, a crucial time for the church, when the Emperor Constantine and his successors ended years of persecution and welcomed Christians as allies in governing the empire.

Hilary was born in Gaul into a wealthy family, but he wasn’t brought up in a Christian environment. He came to baptism (about the year 345 AD) through personal study of the scriptures. He was married and had a daughter. Then, about ten years after his baptism he was elected by the people of Potiers as their bishop. An unusual path to become a bishop!

A bishop’s role changed after Constantine gave the church freedom in 312 AD. More and more, they became agents of the emperor and his administration, and that brought temptation. Hilary and one of his friends, Martin of Tours, thought a good number of the bishops in Gaul were after worldly power and prestige rather than a spiritual ministry.

Many bishops closely associated with the emperors– both in the eastern and western parts of the empire– were also influenced by Arianism, which was favored by the emperors Constantius ( 350-361) and Valens (364-378). Arianism claimed that Jesus was human and not divine. He was only godlike.

Arianism is Christianity lite; it dismisses the claims of Jesus to be divine and makes him like us, only better and more powerful. Probably the emperors and  bishops sympathetic to the Arian doctrine felt it made Christianity more palatable for unbelievers. A good political option

Hilary strongly upheld the divinity of Jesus, basing his faith on the scriptures  he read and the sacrament of baptism he received. His stand brought him exile in Asia Minor, but he continued to teach and write in defense of orthodoxy and eventually he was restored to his diocese.

Hilary’s counterpart in the eastern church, St. Athanasius, was another big opponent of Arianism and imperial control of the church. Both bishops suffered exile and helped the church hold to the faith professed at the Council of Nicea in 321 AD. St. Jerome expressed the gravity of the situation: “The world groaned, amazed that it had become Arian.”

Hilary in Gaul and Athanasius in Egypt argued for Catholic orthodoxy from the scriptures and church tradition. They also strongly encouraged religious life in the church. Athanasius saw the spirituality of the desert, exemplified by St. Anthony ( we remember him later this week) as a remedy for the increasing worldliness of Christians. Hilary was the teacher of Martin of Tours, founder of religious life in Gaul.

The two saints promoted religious life which played an important part in promoting sound faith in the church. Christianity always needs communities of dedicated believers as well as sharp-minded leaders for its journey through time. Say a prayer for our religious communities, including my own. We need them in the church.

And let’s not forget to pray for good bishops too.

Ordinary Time and Daily Prayer

We’re into Ordinary Time in our liturgy after the Feast of the Epiphany and the Baptism of Jesus which we celebrate this Sunday. Christmas Time is over. So there’s nothing to do till Lent and the Easter season?

Sure there is. Ordinary Time is a time for daily prayer, and daily prayer is never over. The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Liturgy said that daily prayer is at the heart of the Christian life and created a daily lectionary of scripture readings so “ the treasures of the bible be opened more lavishly for the faithful at the table of God’s word.” (SC 51)

The daily lectionary is a treasure for praying with the scriptures, but don’t take it for granted. Treasures, Jesus said, are usually hidden and you have to dig for them. That’s what we do in daily prayer. The liturgy is always a “work”, our daily work, an important work, a daily prayer. It’s the “summit” of the Christian life. We’re always at the beginning, not at the end.

We begin Monday to read the Book of Samuel and the Gospel of Mark from our lectionary. There are feasts of the Lord and his saints to celebrate in the days ahead. It’s a lifelong learning we’re into, a school God provides,  and we learn day by day.

December 18: Joseph, Son of David

Nativity

In today’s gospel from Matthew we meet Joseph, the husband of Mary, who has an important part in Jesus’ birth and early years.

Matthew’s gospel calls Joseph as a just man, someone who listens to God rather than to himself, and does God’s will. He’s a carpenter, the gospels say, certainly not privileged – but he’s a “son of David” from the royal family who gives the world a Messiah.

During their betrothal, which in Jewish tradition was more than the modern engagement we know, Joseph finds that Mary is pregnant. A just man, he struggles to find a way to divorce her quietly when, in a dream, an angel of God tells him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife.

Here is the key part of the angel’s message: “For it is through the Holy Spirit 
that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

Like Mary, Joseph believes God’s message. Like Mary, he sees more than human eyes and a human mind see. “When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.” He believed what we say in our creed: “(Jesus) was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary.” Jesus became one of us, God was with us.

Artists early on pictured Joseph with his head in his hands, listening in sleep to the angel’s message. In a dream later he heard the angel telling him to take the child and his mother to Egypt to escape Herod, the king. He was a man of great faith.

The medieval artist who painted the picture above has Mary pointing to Joseph as a witness to whose Child this is who’s’ born in a stable. They are the first to believe and they will care for Jesus with all the love and care they can give him.

Joseph has his hand on his head, as he does in so many portrayals of him. The angel spoke to him in dreams. Faith is like a dream where God speaks to us in another way.

O Leader of the House of Israel,
giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai:
come to rescue us with your mighty power!